Privacy Online – Is your information safe?
May 27, 2009 | By Damon Armour, IT Security Officer, contributing writer (Concept contributor: Chip Matson)
In my March article, the issue of Facebook privacy was addressed in order to increase awareness of security features available for protecting personal information. Social networking (like Facebook) is only one of many areas of our online lives that we may use frequently. Email, document sharing, calendaring, and online purchasing are others on which data is collected and used to profile an individual. Awareness of how to protect yourself and others, as always, is the key to success in using these sites and protecting your personal information.
An article about Google and individuals' privacy, What Google Knows About You, appears in the May 2009 issue of Computerworld. For perspective, Google offers many solutions to consumers, businesses, and government agencies. However, merely by using the services offered, individuals are providing access to a wide variety of personal data. Examples include web searches (Google), emails (Gmail), calendars (Google Calendar), contacts (Google Contacts), instant messaging (Google Talk), documents (Google Docs), locations (Google Latitude), conversations (Google Voice), pictures (Picasa), videos (YouTube), and books (Google Books), etc. The sheer amount of data can be combined by many different resources to provide a relatively clear personal profile of the user.
What are Google and similar firms doing with all this information? Most claim they are not using it in a way to pinpoint an individual, but rather to anonoymize the information. Yet how difficult would it be to take it to the next level? The Federal Trade Commission () has the same question and sent a notice out earlier this year to ensure that online companies collecting consumer data have proper privacy statements.
The next level is often referred to as behavioral advertising. People have seen this in the form of grocery store loyalty cards used at check-out counters to obtain discounts or in other similar programs that collect data in order to build a better sales picture. With online personal information, the scope can be expanded to multiple levels of a person's existence. Advertising, at this point, could target individuals with specific information found in lists in emails, plans on personal online calendars, and locations at times of the day. For example, imagine walking up a street on a hot, summer day and your phone buzzes with an email message notifying you of a special at a corner ice cream shop only a block away. This example draws a fine line between convenience and nuisance.
The price we pay to enjoy many of the free services we find online is made available because of our willingness to supply our data. The step we must take as individuals is to ensure that the data we are handing over is not sensitive in nature. As Internet growth continues, more cloud-based (online-only) applications will become available. An essential context that individuals must pay close attention to is the privacy statement as well as the policies of the provider. If the language is not clear or does not sound appropriate, the safest route is to avoid those services.
Our personal information is important, and it should be secured in the best possible way. A little diligence on our part can go a long way in protecting ourselves as well as those with whom we communicate.
Another resource from Computer World is 6 Steps to Protect Yourself on Google: http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=336607